Recent reports on denominational decline and growth in countries as disparate as England, Egypt and Canada all cite the common factor of busting or booming Sunday school ministries.
Touchstone magazine (September) reports that the steep decline in the fortunes of the United Church of Canada are more dramatic when examining the loss of Sunday school students in that denomination. While the population of Canada grew from 20 million in 1965 to 30.5 million in 1999, membership in the United Church declined from 1,064,033 to 668,549. Sunday school membership fell from 609,583 to 140,129 — more than a 75 percent drop.
The same issue of the magazine notes in passing that in the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt, “Sunday school is a major force…” Pope Shenouda III, head of the church, reports that there are more than 30,000 Sunday school teachers in Cairo alone. Some of the larger churches have 300 teachers.
The Church of England’s decline and lack of ability to hand down the faith to succeeding generations is in no small part due to the disintegration of its church education programs, including Sunday schools and day schools, according to sociologist Norman Dennis. The Tablet (Sept. 1) cites Dennis’ study as showing that these losses happened “more by muddle than by malice.” In the 1940s, the state cooperated with the Church of England in preserving its vast network of church day schools.
Boosters of these Anglican schools thought Christian education was now secure. For this reason, one segment of the church saw no reason to continue with Sunday schools. Meanwhile the Anglican schools were becoming increasingly secular, replacing education in the Christian faith with an objective and comparative approach to teaching religion. The magazine notes, however, that there has been a recent attempt to reinject Anglican theology in the teaching at day schools.
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